Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

Oscar Wilde and the Plaistow Matricide: Competing Critiques of Influence in the Formation of Late-Victorian Masculinities

Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

Oscar Wilde and the Plaistow Matricide: Competing Critiques of Influence in the Formation of Late-Victorian Masculinities

Article excerpt

This paper examines the ways in which the concept of "pernicious influence" was mobilized in late-Victorian periodical publications to reinforce a normative conception of masculinity through powerful discourses on the relationship between textual consumption and identity. Discussion of the threat posed by "penny dreadfuls" drew not only on widely held assumptions regarding the criminalizing influence of popular fiction, exemplified by the case of Robert Coombes, but also made connections with the supposedly corrupting effeminacy of the "degenerate" intellectual, with the trials of Oscar Wilde as the main focus. The paper goes on to explore Wilde's engagement with the concept of influence across a wide range of his writings, in the course of which he developed an alternative critique of all influence as a perversion of self-realization. This relates in some respects to existing strands of critical debate relating to Wilde's sexuality (for a summary of this scholarship which dominated critical discussions of Wilde in the 1990s, see Small, 2000; and Bashford, 2002). However, the current essay seeks to frame Wilde's contribution in terms of late-Victorian debates on the cultural significance of reading practices and in relation to Wilde's own critique of influence, by means of which he contested many of the assumptions underpinning bourgeois conceptions of normative masculinity.

Keywords: influence, literature, Victorian, masculinity, criminality, Wilde

Late-Victorian debates on the root causes of criminality worked sometimes through the demonization of elements of popular culture such as "penny dreadfuls" - cheap magazines featuring sensational and often violent tales in which criminals were frequently cast in the role of heroic underdog. These penny dreadfuls were thought to exercise a degrading influence over the working-class boys who were presumed to be their principal readership. But the social reach of concerns over degenerate masculinities went beyond any single subcultural formation, taking in decadent intellectuals and bohemian artists as well as the urban residuum. Accordingly, the middle-class periodical press mulled over social distinctions not just in terms of a vertical social hierarchy but also in accordance with a wide-ranging division between bourgeois normativity and the typology of these various forms of degeneration. Anxieties relating to reading- or, to be precise, the "pernicious influence" of reading- were thus a common feature, from the penny dreadful to the poetry of decadence.

Of particular significance in this regard is the fact that the critique of pernicious influence, like the discourse on degeneration more broadly, was articulated from within the dominant masculinist culture itself (Smith, 2004, p. 4) and is thus best understood as a defensive strategy against a perceived threat to its norms and privileges. Late- Victorian theories of masculinity operated on the basis of what Andrew Smith describes as a "bifurcated model" of the subject in which male identity was deemed to be under threat from an innate tendency towards debasement. This discourse denoted the non-normative as a pathological tendency and, in seeking to delimit the scope of such diseased states of being, sought to quarantine them and thereby preserve the status and privilege of bourgeois masculinities at a time when, as John Tosh has shown, they were felt to be under threat (Tosh, 1999). This was evident in the critical discourse of the middle-class periodical press, which policed both popular and highbrow literary genres for pernicious influence. The ideological work that such criticism performed will be explored in the current essay with reference to two landmark legal cases from 1895, both of which hinged, in different ways, on the question of corrupting textual influence. One of these- the trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde for gross indecency- scarcely needs any introduction. The case of the Plaistow Matricide, on the other hand, has sunk into comparative obscurity, though it was reported internationally at the time. …

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